Watch out for ‘sugar-confused’ junk food with a respectable name or image

Posted by
July 31, 2012

What, exactly, are “sugar-infused wild blueberries”?

Apparently, they’re a kind of highly processed blueberry-flavored paste that contains “blueberry,” “natural blueberry flavors” and eight other additives, none of which is sugar, but the second of which is high fructose corn syrup.

Perhaps, then, the qualifier “sugar-infused” should be changed to “sugar-confused,” given the Food and Drug Administration’s recent ruling that high fructose corn syrup can in no way be regarded as “sugar” (let alone “corn sugar,” as the Corn Refiners Association would have liked).

But whatever the terminology used to describe it, this HFCS-infused ingredient is among the things you’ll be consuming should you opt for a blueberry bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts.  HFCS is also one of the ingredients listed in the Dunkin blueberry muffin. However, you won’t find any listed as an ingredient in the blueberry crumb donut.

While just about all the choices at Dunkin Donuts would not be what most food-conscious folks would call good pickins’, still, many probably believe that choosing a blueberry muffin or bagel over a doughnut is a healthier choice, especially if you’re avoiding HFCS.

Of course, if you’re grabbing something at a fast food place, whatever the “dish” is called, most likely you’ll also be in for a long list of undesirable additives. But what about home-prepared items? Without a label check, your “healthy” lunch or breakfast choice could be just as bad.

Exhibit A: Kellogg’s Smart Start Antioxidant Cereal

The advertising hype says this cereal not only has whole grain wheat flakes, but “antioxidants such as beta carotene to support a healthy immune system.” But a “reality” ingredient check reveals high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, more high fructose corn syrup and several preservatives, which are pretty similar to ingredients in many of those Dunkin’ doughnuts.

Exibit B: Morning Star Farms Veggie Patties

If you’re looking for a hotbed of free-glutamic acid (such as is found in MSG), look no further than this company’s burgers line. Advertised to be a “better-for-you veggie burger, they contain such MSG ingredients as soy protein concentrate, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, and soy protein isolate, as well as artificial flavors and other not-so-good-for-you ingredients. It’s just one more  example of how home-cooked “healthy” is little better than a fast-food pickup.

(Is there really a Morning Star Farm that makes all these vegetarian dishes in a lovely pastoral setting? No, but you probably guessed that already, didn’t you? The Morning Star Farms brand was originally introduced by Worthington Foods, a division of Miles Laboratories in the 1970s, then acquired by Kelloggs’ in the late ’90s, with no sign of an actual farm as it passed hands to different food conglomerates.)

And therein lies a lesson of sorts: when it comes to processed food, you can’t simply take for granted that a particular item will necessarily be more or less healthy based on its name – any more than you can make a similar assumption about a company’s products based on the idea that the same family has been making them in the same place for as long as anyone can remember.

An interesting example is the company of which Dunkin’ Donuts is now a subsidiary – Smucker’s.  The same Smucker’s whose commercials present homey, bucolic depictions of Tim and Richard Smucker as boys in 1954 Orrville, Ohio, where everyone in town knew they’d grow up to make the world’s best jam, just as their family has been doing for five generations.

Not their father’s jam

Of course, anyone who bothers to read the label on a jar of regular  Smucker’s Strawberry Jam will immediately know that this is not the same “extra delicious jam” that is romanticized in a commercial showing young Richard Smucker trying to capture its essence in a strawberry field. That’s because back in 1954, it would be a long time before businesses such as Smucker’s starting replacing sugar in their products with the cheap laboratory-contrived sweetener high fructose corn syrup.

And while the company does offer organic jams as well as a premium line called “Orchard’s Finest,” such HFCS-free products aren’t anywhere near as widely available as the conventional HFCS-infused line of Smucker’s jams and preserves that are shown in the commercials.

Smucker’s in fact, now has quite a motley and extended ‘family” of brands featured at its website, ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to standards like Pillsbury Flour, Folger’s Coffee, Pet Milk, Jif Peanut Butter and Hungry Jack Pancake Mix to Santa Cruz organic juices and Red River 100 percent natural Hot Cereal. In other words, it’s now a full-fledged food conglomerate, even though its commercials continue to convey the impression that it has remained a folksy, small-town, old-timey down-on-the-farm enterprise out of Orrville, Ohio after all these years.

But with the exception of organic foods, which are subject to certain USDA-imposed standards and from which many undesirable additives are excluded, the supposed integrity, longevity or image projected by any brand is no more a guarantee you’ll be consuming a “healthy” product than is the idea of eating something like a muffin or a bagel rather than a doughnut.

In other words, to find out what’s really “junk food” and what isn’t, there’s simply no substitute for reading the ingredients.